The Crown is not, bless its gilded heart, a particularly subtle show.
For all the stiffness of its characters’ upper lips, The Crown relishes finding melodrama behind every damask curtain. Tense conversations unfold during a literal tumultuous storm; despondent royals cap off low moments by staring ruefully into mirrors; pointed flashbacks spell out familial discontent so starkly they might as well be skywriting subtext into text. To depict a class of people that has lived through generations by showing the public as little of themselves as possible, The Crown seeks to explode every tiny moment into something bigger and more recognizably human, to mixed success.
This longing to understand the royal family as an actual family — with all the tensions and joys any family is subject to — is at the heart of The Crown’s second season. Determined though Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) is to keep everything respectable, season two finds her on the cusp of the 1960s, in a much different position than any British monarch has been before. A politely smiling emblem of an institution that the changing world is beginning to eye warily, she needs to find a way to make the monarchy relevant again — not to mention find her own foothold before it’s knocked out from underneath her.
As a Netflix series, The Crown is a sprawling creature that gets to indulge in the luxury of a deep bench of talent and an enormous budget; however, Elizabeth isn’t exactly the focal point of this second season like she was in the first. Her surly husband Philip (Matt Smith) and vivacious sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) get significant time to themselves as they grapple with the changing times, their subservient positions, and in Margaret’s case, a complex new counterpart in the form of photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, played to arch perfection by Matthew Goode.
There are also glancing attempts to fold international politics into the mix, which are far and away The Crown’s weakest point, despite the beautiful cinematography that accompanies the series across the Earth and back. Philip sets out on the vast Indian Ocean; Elizabeth takes an impulsive trip to Ghana in order to broker peace; British incompetence sends the crucial Suez Canal into chaos. Even J.F.K. (Michael C. Hall) and his wife Jackie (Jodi Balfour) crash Buckingham Palace at one point, sparking tumult with their all-American oblivion. Clunky flashbacks to some characters’ brushes with Nazis pepper the season, often for the worse.
Despite the roiling tensions of the imminent ’60s and the various revolutions it holds, the Royal Family’s domestic politics are still what The Crown does best. And for every moment that falls apart under the weight of leaden metaphors, there are still several that shine. Royals may not be just like you or me, but they are, The Crown insists, prone to indulging the same trifling nonsense as the rest of us.
Their trifling nonsense, however, can, and often does, shift the course of history.
Many of The Crown’s most powerful, pointed moments are directed at the petty disputes of pettier men
When it was first announced that The Crown’s second season would be giving more time to Philip, the general reaction was muted, at best. Innately charming though Smith is, Philip is one of the show’s sourest notes. Once Elizabeth became queen, the dashing man she fell for quickly became a scowling reminder of the personal sacrifices she would always have to make in the name of duty.
Philip spent much of season one skulking about Buckingham Palace, practically limping under the mammoth chip on his shoulder about his once obedient wife daring to become something of a confident leader.
In season two, Elizabeth sends him to the outskirts of her empire on what she says is an opportunity, but both know is an excuse to put some necessary space between them. But no matter where Philip goes throughout this season — which includes Australia, the repressed depths of his traumatic childhood, and even Antarctica — he clings to his bitter resentment as if letting it go would mean fully castrating himself.
Some, like Uproxx’s Alan Sepinwall, have concluded that season two relies far too much on Philip as a character to be fully successful — and to be honest, I expected to feel the same, as I generally find Philip to be one of the more grating characters TV has to offer. But to my surprise, I came away from season two believing that Philip’s defining characteristic, his kneejerk rage at being belittled, is a crucial component of something The Crown depicts better than just about any other show.
From its very beginning, The Crown has shown the myriad ways in which even a queen can be undermined and condescended to, over and over again, by brigades of men who believe they know better. From Philip’s blithe eye-rolls to Antony’s casual dismissals to the bumblings of blustering Prime Ministers, The Crown is teeming with petty men who don’t realize that carelessness can very often be an act of cruelty.
So, no, I can’t say I enjoyed seeing more of Philip’s tantrums. After all, this is Foy’s last season in the role (a part she’s played with gorgeous, calibrated restraint), and the chemistry between Kirby and Goode is so intense that I’m starting a petition for them to star in a spinoff movie as soon as I finish this review.
But there is simply no moment more representative of how The Crown can bring even the smallest grievances to startling light than in the second season’s thirdepisode, when Elizabeth and Philip face off in their harshest interaction to date (one that is teased in media res at the beginning of the season’s premiere, before it flashes back five months to show how, exactly, they got there). Exhausted and furious, Elizabeth demands that Philip try to maybe “earn” the esteem of those he’s always complained are belittling him.
“NO,” Philip immediately thunders. “No, no, no.” Working for their respect is pointless, he seethes, because they only understand one thing.
So the episode cuts to Philip, foot twitching like an impatient kid, getting crowned prince on top of his duke title. Elizabeth stares at him, jaw clenched in a disdain so pure it’s hard to imagine it could ever be matched — until he turns around and sees the rest of the room packed with aristocrats only barely containing their pity for the weak man draped in furs before them.
No, Philip doesn’t want to work to earn the admiration he feels should be afforded him. But as he and many men like him have grown to understand, whether they like it or not, there might be shortcuts to power, but none to respect.
The first two seasons of The Crown are currently available to stream on Netflix.